Rice, Mukherjee discuss stalled nuclear deal

May 10th, 2008 - 10:05 am ICT by admin  

By Arun Kumar
Washington, May 10 (IANS) With the Indian coalition government’s leftist supporters still holding up the India-US civil nuclear deal, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has again discussed the issue with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Rice spoke to Mukherjee Friday as part of a series of calls to foreign leaders to urge them to use whatever leverage they have with Yangon to reach humanitarian supplies to cyclone ravaged Myanmar, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

“Of course, part of their discussion also was about the Indian Civil Nuclear Deal, but they focused quite a bit on the issue of Burma,” he said without giving any details about the conversation on the nuclear issue.

Though Washington of late has acknowledged that it was for New Delhi to sort out problems of its domestic politics, US lawmakers have pointed out that time was running out for the nuclear deal in view of the Congressional elections in November.

During a recent visit to New Delhi, Senate Foreign Relations committee chairman Joseph Biden clearly stated that despite broad bipartisan support for the deal, it might be practically impossible to get Congressional approval for the implementing bilateral 123 agreement unless it reaches them by June end.

The deal has to cross two more hurdles before it goes to the US Congress for final approval. First, New Delhi has to sign an India specific safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then ask the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to change its guidelines for nuclear commerce.

India and the IAEA have finalised a draft agreement, but the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has decided not to sign it without the approval of the Left parties. New Delhi had earlier entered into talks with IAEA after getting a nod from the Left.

Rice’s call to Mukherjee coincidentally came the day a leading US daily reported that the State Department has asked US lawmakers to keep secret its answers to their queries about the nuclear agreement, fearing public disclosure may torpedo the deal.

With the civil nuclear deal “in such desperate straits that the State Department has imposed unusually strict conditions on the answers it provided to questions posed by members of Congress: Keep them secret,” the Washington Post said Friday.

The State Department made the request, even though the answers are not classified, because officials fear that public disclosure would torpedo the deal, it said citing unnamed sources.

Given the pointed nature of the questions, it said the State Department had little choice but to be candid with lawmakers about the answers, in ways that senior State Department officials had not been in public.

State Department said it had no plans to make the answers public. “We’ve handled answers to sensitive questions in an appropriate way that responded to congressional concerns,” said spokesman Tom Casey. “We’re going to continue with that approach.”

Lynne Weil, a spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs committee, said the State Department provided a lot of information, but the committee has agreed not to disclose the answers because “some data might be considered diplomatically sensitive.”

She said the nuclear deal still must come back to Congress for final approval, and, at that point, public hearings will be held and “the questions will come up again.”

The Post said Tom Lantos, the late Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed to the State Department request in February, and the current chairman, Howard L. Berman, has abided by that commitment, though Berman is not considered a strong supporter of the deal.

The nearly 50 questions posed by Congress are highly technical, but they were carefully crafted to get to the heart of the balancing act the administration has performed between adhering to the letter of US non-proliferation law and assuaging Indian concerns that it was not being treated like a true nuclear power.

Some lawmakers have also raised concerns about whether the implementing 123 agreement negotiated by the administration was in conformity with the enabling Hyde Act or fudges critical details.

For instance, one of the questions pertains to whether the US would terminate nuclear trade if India resumes nuclear testing. This is a sensitive point in India and is required under US law, but the answer is not entirely clear from the text of the US-India agreement.

Another series of questions addresses the commitment by the US to supply India with a “reliable supply of fuel” for its reactors, including a pledge to take steps to “guard against the disruption of fuel supplies.”

A series of questions asks whether these commitments are legally binding, whether the two governments agree on the definition of a fuel supply disruption and whether the commitments would be affected by a nuclear test.

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